What is the Catholic Church?

There has been much discussion on the interblags lately concerning Protestant conversions to the Roman Catholic church. This discussion has shown up on my Facebook feed and has raised some questions, so I thought I would write a post in order to address some of those questions. I also thought that I might offer my own perspective on the issue.

There have been several blog posts which have done a good job getting at some of the relevant issues. These can be seen here, here, and here. While these posts are good enough to stand on their own, I want to add a bit to the discussion from my perspective as one holding a PhD in Historical Theology and one who was specifically trained and wrote my dissertation in early medieval ecclesiology.

To my Roman Catholic Friends
First of all I must pay heed to the great elephantoid presence among us and say something to address my friends who are Roman Catholic, many of whom converted to the Roman Church from Protestantism. I realize that seeing a series of articles linked to my Facebook wall and seeing a post like this on my blog may be unsettling or even offensive to some of you. To this I would like to say two things. First of all, this post is not directed to Roman Catholics. My purpose in writing this is not to try to convert anyone, even if I could. This post, as well as the others I have posted are written to Protestants. I realize that some of the arguments we are using may strike a nerve with some of you because they may be addressing some of the issues you faced when you converted, yet this is not my intention. I hope that you will grant an indulgence to us as we have an “in house” discussion. Secondly, I am a Presbyterian for a reason. I have not converted to Roman Catholicism, though I have heard all the arguments for it (over many pints with some of you at mid-town St. Louis pubs). I would hope that you would grant me that latitude to express my Presbyterian distinctives, as I would you if you would express yours.

To the Protestants in the Room
It seems to me that the essence of this discussion boils down to a matter of ecclesiology. What is the nature of the church? Until we have understood and come to terms with a common definition of what the church is, we will not be able to address the issue of conversion to the Roman church. So what is the church? Our Roman Catholic brethren will claim that the church is defined by apostolic succession. What do we Protestants have against the apostles? Well, nothing at all. We all profess that the church is apostolic. The rubber meets the road, however, with how we define apostolic succession. They define it as an uninterrupted succession of bishops who are a part of a physical succession of laying on of hands that goes all the way back to the apostles. Sounds neat doesn’t it? Sounds pretty persuasive.

The only problem is that the bible doesn’t define the true church this way, and neither did the catholic church before the late middle ages. I don’t have a copy of Denzinger on me, but I would guess that, as with most things, the doctrine of apostolic succession as we know it today was not articulated until the Council of Trent. Nevertheless, even the article from the New Catholic Encyclopedia on “apostolic succession” admits that all the churches did not even have bishops until the 2nd or 3rd century, and that in many churches before that time rule was by a college of presbyters, what we today call a presbytery.

Now, this article is not a defense of Presbyterianism, so let’s not get off track. What I’m trying to do is talk about what is apostolic. It seems that before the time of Tertullian and Irenaeus (by the turn of the 3rd century) apostolic succession was held by all ordained pastors, not just the bishops. Clement of Rome in his letter to the church at Corinth espouses such an idea. Later on, it seemed expedient that the bishop become the sole authority and the-buck-stops-here’er with regard to defense of orthodoxy. Now, that is known, as I have argued to my Roman Catholic friends, as changing the rules in the middle of the game. Because if apostolic succession is defined by an unbroken chain of ministers laying hands on ministers going all the way back to the apostles, then we certainly have claim to it.

Yet I’m not even trying to make the claim that Protestants have apostolic succession. At least not yet. My purpose in writing this article is to argue that apostolic succession is not, nor never was intended to be, the marker of unity with the true church. In its inception, apostolic succession was a concept used to defend the true faith against heresy. Yet if you were to ask Tertullian or Irenaeus what the marks of the true church were, they would likely tell you that it was adherence to the orthodox faith and that unity was centered around the sacraments. This may seem like splitting hairs, but it becomes important at the Reformation. The claim of the Reformation is that the Church of Rome had departed from the apostolic faith. So what matters more, adherence to the apostolic faith, or adherence to an artifice that was once helpful in preserving the apostolic faith? No, the definition of the church cannot be changed in the middle of the game. The definition of the church and the symbol of its unity has always been centered around faith in Jesus Christ and the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, and not on its form of government.

This was how the early medievals viewed the matter. In Western Europe from the 5th-10th centuries, or so, there was an influx of new peoples into the church who were formerly pagan, or Arian, Germanic tribes. Rome was in decline, so Rome could not be depended on for help. The local bishops were largely laymen of aristocratic class who were educated in the palace courts. Who then would lead the charge for evangelism, revival, and church building in this strange new world?

The answer is that it came largely down to monks. Monks who were trained to be local parish pastors, evangelists, missionaries, and apostolic bishops. Yet how did these churchmen, who were seeking to unite the large swath of newly converted Europe into the church of Christ, how did they define the church? Was it the bishops?

No. The early medievals did what they did with almost any theological issue (or any issue at all, for that matter), they went to the bible. And what they found was that the bible defines the church as those who believe in Christ and who are unified by means of the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. What then was to be the continual driving force of unity in this nascent European civilization? The Eucharist. The Lord’s Table was the place where all men and women came to be united into one body of Christ and one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. This, if you are interested, was also the view of St. Augustine.

[Addendum: It is interesting to note that before the separation from the East and the West and before the separation of the Reformation, the church was defined around the Lord's Table. It was only after these splits that other definitions were sought]

So what does this mean for me if I am considering the Roman Church? It means that if you are looking for the Catholic Church you may find it right where you are. The Catholic Church exists wherever the apostolic faith is professed, and the table of the Lord is held open to all baptized disciples of Jesus. If you are looking for something ancient, you will find it there: the table of the Lord was instituted by Christ himself. If you are looking for tradition, you will find it there:St. Paul says that he handed down the tradition of the Eucharist as he received directly from Jesus. If you are looking for unity with the Catholic Church, you will find it there: Sts. Paul and Augustine say that anyone who partakes of the body of Christ becomes and is in union with the body of Christ. If you are looking for salvation, you will find it there: Jesus says in the gospel of John that those who eat his flesh and blood will have eternal life. I love how Peter Leithart recently put it in this blog post: the Eucharist makes the church. That hits the nail on the head. It’s no coincidence that Peter found this insight by reading a book by Cardinal Henri de Lubac where he wrote about the early medievals and their concept of the body of Christ.

So what are you looking for? Are you looking for something ancient, some old traditions, something catholic, something salvific? You can find it at the Eucharist at your own local church.

Are you looking for certainty? Are you looking for an authority that will never be shaken? Well, you will not find it there, but sadly, you may find that you won’t find it in Rome either. The only source of truth we have is the Holy Spirit speaking through the scriptures to his people.  The only certain authority we have is the Lord Jesus Christ who rules over his church. Everything else can and will fail and err.

So put your faith in Christ. And be Catholic just where you are.

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2 thoughts on “What is the Catholic Church?

  1. Pingback: The Only Source of Truth | Resurrectio et Vita

  2. Pingback: What is the Catholic Church? « The Federal Vision

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